The Hessians Part I

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The Hessians Part I

“On the 28th of October the engagement at White-Plains took place. But it has been asserted, that, by my not attacking the lines on the day of action, I lost an opportunity of destroying the rebel army … Sir, an assault upon the enemy’s right, which was opposed to the Hessian troops, was intended. The committee must give me credit when I assure them, that I have political reasons, and no other, for declining to explain why that assault was not made.”

Howe’s narrative, April 22, 1779

Howe’s failure to launch a full-scale attack at White Plains was one of the vital points of his command, and one for which he had received the most vociferous criticism. Members of the House of Commons may have inched further forward on their seats as Howe came to this point. He had not managed to deal satisfactorily with any of the other debating points covered so far; failure to tackle the White Plains controversy head-on might bring an end to the patience of the House.

Howe, finally, did not disappoint. The delivery of his speech, with its emphasis on the key words “Hessian” and “was,” made it clear what had happened. To scotch any remaining uncertainty, Howe added that further details on the affair would “in no degree affect my honour or my conduct.” Nobody listening could be in any doubt. The Hessians had refused to go into battle. Howe’s “political reasons” were nothing more than an unwillingness to criticize men who were still fighting alongside British troops in North America. Howe had played his ace well, managing to clearly convey his meaning without inelegantly apportioning blame. The general, beloved of his army, was refusing to openly criticize any part of it, even foreigners. He was being generous. He was being noble. And he was lying through his teeth.

The participation of Hessian troops in the war had been controversial from the start. It was a time-honored practice, but many colonists were repelled by the idea that their mother country would bring German hirelings across the ocean to fight them. The reputation of the Hessians, in particular their reputed fondness for relying on their bayonets, resulted in them being viewed as objects of dread. In much the same way as the redcoats were in awe of the legendary American riflemen, rebel soldiers dreaded encountering the mustachioed, blue-coated soldiers from states including Hesse-Cassel and Brunswick. For Britain, there had been little option but to resort to hiring troops. Recruitment was never going to provide enough men and in any case, new recruits would take time to be trained. The Hessians may not have been the first choice, but they were experienced soldiers and could be relied upon to do their job.

There was no doubt that the soldiers who were provided would be effective, but Howe had revealed from the start that he was concerned about the officers who would command them. In a quite remarkable letter to Germain in April 1776, he had suggested that a bonus could be offered to the Hessian officers, which would be dependent on them receiving a favorable report from Howe. It may well have been considered insulting by the professional officers concerned, but Germain smoothed things over by offering reassurances that the officers supplied would be of a high quality. For the most part, that turned out to be so, but it was not the case in the most important instance of all, the Hessian commander-in-chief, General von Heister. Howe and von Heister disliked each other from the moment the elderly German officer stepped ashore on Staten Island. At the age of 69, he was “a stiff and completely militarily minded general” according to the Hessian liaison officer Friedrich von Muenchhausen. This was a poor match for Howe’s easy-going, informal nature; the two men were never going to bond over a late-night game of cards and a bottle of claret. If they had tried it would have been a strange affair, since they shared no common language.

Von Heister also displeased Howe by insisting his men needed time to recover from their long journey to Britain and then across the Atlantic. Having previously had no difficulty in finding reasons to delay opening his campaign, Howe was suddenly affronted by being offered another and he rather huffily prepared to press ahead without the Hessian contingent that he had waited so long for. There had been nothing to complain about in the Hessians’ conduct during the Battle of Long Island, but further friction between the two commanders was not long in coming. Wanting the rebel lines at Brooklyn to be razed, Howe had asked the Hessian troops to do the work. Perhaps feeling that his men were being treated as workhorses, von Heister had insisted they should receive extra pay for the manual labor. Howe instead had put British troops to work and made another mark on von Heister’s card.

Although disliking the commanding officer, Howe was delighted with the small contingent of Hessian jägers present in the first wave. These were exactly the sort of troops Howe dreamed of turning his own light infantry into. Referred to as “chasseurs” or “greencoats” by the British, they instantly took their place in the vanguard of the army, alongside the British lights and grenadiers, and when Howe made his first tentative request for reinforcements, he had asked for 800 more jägers.

Off the battlefield, there were problems. Howe was never able to get a grip on looting and pillaging and the Hessians were among the worst offenders, sometimes appearing to see America as a personal larder, to be plundered at will. “They slaughter milch cows for meat,” reported Loftus Cliffe, “depriving everyone of milk and butter. All houses are ‘damned rebel houses,’ especially if there is a good cellar.” Despite such depredations, and their fearsome reputation, the Hessians gradually earned a more favorable reputation among the Americans and many prisoners declared they received better treatment from the Hessians than from the British.

As Howe’s army prepared to move to confront Washington at White Plains, the second wave of Hessians finally arrived, nearly 4,000 strong, including a 125-man company of jägers. Howe was pleased to get the extra troops and delighted to have more jägers at his disposal. The commanding officer of this corps was the 60-year-old Lieutenant General Wilhelm von Knyphausen. Howe may have suppressed a groan when he saw that another old man had been sent out to him, but von Knyphausen was to prove a far more effective and energetic commander than von Heister. Also stepping off the transports after the arduous journey was a jäger captain, Johann Ewald. A compact man with a soldierly posture, he was a stickler for protocol but in no way an unthinking martinet. He was one of the most imaginative soldiers in America at the time, with the priceless ability to size up the lie of the land quickly and grasp which ground could be held and which attacked. Just 32 years of age when he joined Howe’s army, he had already been a soldier for half his life and had fought in the Seven Years War. His most serious injury, however, had come during a drunken brawl with friends in which he lost his left eye and took over a year to recover fully. He was to become a firm favorite of every British officer he served under, including Howe, who reminisced with the young German officer about his own days as a light infantry commander in the previous war.

The crossing from Britain had been an ordeal (fresh provisions had been exhausted almost a month earlier and scurvy had broken out) and the bemused Hessians had then encountered the eerily quiet streets of New York. With a quarter of the houses destroyed by the fire and many others deserted and ransacked, it was a ghost town and the men were happy to be transported up the East River on October 22, to join the main army. The following day, Howe and Ewald met for the first time. Seeing something of himself in the German captain, Howe complimented Ewald on the appearance of his men and put him to work straight away.

Ordered to scout out the rebel positions, Ewald and his men joined with the 1st Jäger Company and advanced. Ewald declined the invitation to mix his troops with the more seasoned troops of the other company, declaring that he needed to get to know his men. He was given the perfect opportunity within minutes, as heavy firing broke out on his left flank. Ewald’s company had stumbled into an engagement with several battalions of Americans and required rescuing by British light infantry. It was an inauspicious start, costing the lives of six of his men, and Ewald received a sharp telling off from von Heister once back at camp. Partly out of his personal dislike of von Heister and partly due to his instinctive respect for Ewald, Howe took the trouble to reassure the Hessian captain and commended the bravery of the jägers in general orders the following day, referring to their “spirited behaviour.”

Ewald quickly proved himself to be a man of action and relished the opportunity to put his theories on partisan warfare (“which I had acquired through much reading”) to the test. On October 26 he learned of a large enemy supply depot and suggested an operation to capture it. With the support of a light infantry battalion and the 17th Light Dragoons, the depot was captured, earning Ewald another commendation from Howe. The Hessians were therefore very much on the credit side of Howe’s ledger as he prepared to advance upon the rebel lines at White Plains.

Henry Clinton, as ever, was full of ideas. He suggested to Howe that he should pretend to withdraw his army back to New Rochelle, threaten an attack in a different direction, and then suddenly swing back to attack Washington at White Plains. Howe had already shown his lack of appetite for such shenanigans and Clinton should not have been surprised at being ordered instead to advance on White Plains on the morning of October 27 and make a full report on the strength of the rebel position. His report was uncharacteristically cautious: Clinton could not recommend an assault on the Americans, believing their flanks to be secure and suspecting that a clear route of retreat was available to them if pressed. Despite this, Howe decided to attack the following day.

Clinton’s relationship with Howe was by this point under intense stress. Not only was his advice consistently disregarded, there is every reason to believe that Clinton had recently received two very worrying letters from London, which raked up the details of the embarrassing southern expedition all over again. Germain had written to Clinton on August 24, explaining how he was “extremely disappointed and mortified to learn by your letter of the 8th of July that you were still in the South.” Three days later, Clinton’s secretary, Richard Reeve, who had been dispatched to London to argue his case over the shambolic operation at Charleston, had sent a very gloomy report. Reeve had met with Lords North and Germain as well as General Harvey. Germain, according to Reeve, was “a good deal dissatisfied at your going to the southward,” while Harvey “expressed regret that Clinton had gone to South Carolina in the first place.” It is not possible to be certain when these letters reached Clinton, but communications from Germain to Howe, written at the same time, reached America on October 23. It is feasible, indeed likely, that as the Battle of White Plains unfolded, Clinton was fuming once more over the sorry affair at Charleston.

Unhappy over the decision to attack at White Plains in the first place, Clinton suggested that if it must go ahead, it might be best to advance in two columns, offering to command one of them. This Howe could agree to, and Clinton was given command of the right column, with von Heister commanding on the left. Von Heister encountered the enemy first. Once Washington saw the British move, he sent 1,000 men to slow the advance of von Heister’s column. The regular stone walls in the area made ideal defensive positions, and the rebels were able to fire from cover on the advancing column, made up of Ewald’s jägers, a battalion of light infantry, two English brigades, and two Hessian regiments, as well as part of the 17th Light Dragoons. The column numbered around 6,000 men and was too strong to be delayed for long by the rebel skirmishers, who steadily withdrew, taking up a position with more American defenders on top of Chatterton Hill, on the extreme right of the American line. Clinton had declared the American flanks to be secure, but Chatterton Hill was exposed and vulnerable. Separated from the rest of the American line by the Bronx River, it could not easily be supported. Howe decided to concentrate his initial efforts there.

On the right, Clinton was making slow progress. Believing that the rebels would withdraw from their position as soon as they saw him, he attempted to get around their flank without being discovered. From the left, Ewald watched his slow progress with puzzlement; “… why he [Clinton] did not move forward and resolutely attack the enemy is a riddle to me,” he recorded in his diary, “for he had no more difficulties to overcome than the left flank had.” Howe was unconcerned, believing that his first job was to clear the rebels from Chatterton Hill. With this in mind, he spoke to von Heister. What happened next is not clear. Without a common language the men could not speak directly to each other and von Heister would later complain that he often received orders written in English that he could not understand. The absence of a liaison officer to facilitate communication between the generals was a startling omission, one that was not put right until the following month, when von Muenchhausen was appointed to the critical role. On Chatterton Hill, close to 2,000 rebel soldiers waited, comprised of a mixture of steady troops and nervous militia, while the British and Hessian generals talked. In a deleted section of his narrative, Howe detailed what happened next. “The attack being intended upon the enemy’s right which was opposite to the Hessian troops,” he wrote, “I purposed the attack to General Heister whose consent I could not obtain and on that account it was deferred.” Howe’s words were ambiguous. Had he been unable to make von Heister understand what was required of him, or had there been a more definitive refusal on the part of the German commander? A point of the finger at von Heister followed by a gesture toward Chatterton Hill ought to have been enough to get the general idea across, and the draft of Howe’s narrative contains a further intriguing hint that von Heister had been uncooperative rather than uncomprehending. “I purposed the attack to General Heister,” he had started, “who would not…” But Howe crossed this out and substituted the far milder “whose consent I could not obtain.” Still, there was little room for doubt. “I mentioned General Heister’s dissent to General Clinton,” Howe continued, “and my intention of making it [the attack] with the British under his direction.”

After his abortive conference with von Heister, then, Howe had traipsed across the battlefield to find Clinton and ask him to lead the assault. This, clearly, was the event alluded to in Howe’s speech. He had ultimately decided to omit the explicit passage detailing von Heister’s “dissent,” confident that he could get his point across perfectly well without it, but the speech declared that this was the reason why the American lines had not been attacked. It could not have been, since the refusal of von Heister to lead his men against the hill only delayed the assault.

In fact, by the time Howe and Clinton returned from the right flank, the attack on Chatterton Hill was under way. The British had displayed indiscipline before, on Breed’s Hill, before the rebel lines at Brooklyn and on the Harlem Heights. Here they displayed it again, commencing the attack without orders from their commanding officer. Once more, the indiscipline proved costly. Four British regiments, the 28th, the 35th, the 5th, and the 49th, crossed the Bronx to storm Chatterton Hill, but their initial advance was repulsed with heavy loss. Clinton, watching the affair unfold in the company of both Howe and Cornwallis, blamed the commanding officer, who fired his musket at the Americans while climbing the hill and then stopped to reload, robbing (in Clinton’s opinion) the advance of its momentum. Whatever the reason for the repulse, the British quickly returned and Hessian units became involved as well, whether under orders from von Heister or out of shame at being left on the sidelines. British troops jeered as their German comrades struggled to cross the Bronx (having picked an unfortunately deep point for their crossing, one of their color-bearers was nearly swept away), but if their progress was slow, it was also dogged. Colonel Rall in particular played an important role in the fighting, attacking the Americans in their flank and helping to drive them from the hill. The rebel soldiers, featuring once more men of the Delaware and Maryland regiments, withdrew to the main American lines. Losses were fairly even, with British casualties numbering around 200 and the Americans losing around 175. It was a very steep price to pay for the occupation of a hill.

The blaming of the Hessians demands further investigation. Unless Howe had simply forgotten the details of the day by the time he came to prepare his narrative, he must have been aware that he was doing the German troops a great disservice. Yes, von Heister had clearly baulked at the idea of leading the attack on Chatterton Hill, but the attack had gone ahead anyway and Hessian troops had eventually played an important part in it. Howe was also bypassing the real controversy, which swirled around the fact that, having taken possession of the hill, no further attempt was made to assault the rebel lines. This was the attack that did not happen, and this was the decision for which Howe’s critics were demanding an explanation. The Hessians made for convenient scapegoats, but in reality Howe had no reason to resort to such underhand methods. There had actually been solid reasons why a further assault had not been made.

Following the capture of Chatterton Hill, Howe had considered his options for the remainder of the day, before deciding to launch a full assault the following morning. The rebels put the time to good use, strengthening their defenses to the extent that Howe believed reinforcements were needed if he was to tackle them. Percy was called up and duly arrived, on October 30, with men from the New York garrison. The attack was scheduled for the next day and Howe once again asked Clinton for his opinion. Clinton’s response was surprising to say the least. He was opposed to the attack and provided an exhaustive list of reasons to support his position, including, “… the strength of post, the difficulty of approach, the little protection from cannon, little chance of making a blow of consequence, the risk after a tolerable good campaign of finishing it by a cheque, the moral certainty of a junction with Burgoyne next year.” Clinton was not one for throwing compliments around, and Howe should have been well pleased with being credited with mounting a “tolerable good campaign,” but grudging praise aside, it was clear that Clinton had little appetite for anyone’s ideas but his own. He suggested that the British might limit their ambitions to the taking of another hill on the American flank in an attempt to force them from their lines.

Howe had made maneuvering Washington out of prepared defenses into his personal hobby, but this time he wanted more. To Clinton’s surprise, the commander-in-chief was determined to press on with his full-scale assault. Not even heavy rain could deter him and at 2 a.m. on the morning of October 31 he ordered the reluctant Clinton forward. It was too late. The Americans had withdrawn from their lines and taken up an even stronger position about an hour’s march away, at North Castle Heights. For two days Howe watched the American lines as the worsening weather hinted at the end of the campaigning season—frost now covered the ground in the mornings. Criticized as an overly cautious commander, Howe had fully intended to attack Washington at White Plains, but had delayed pulling the trigger for too long. On November 3, he turned his army away and marched back toward Manhattan. The Battle of White Plains had never properly started, but it was to claim one more casualty. Commanding the rearguard during the withdrawal, Clinton changed the order of march only to be informed by one of Howe’s aides-de-camp that he was to make no deviation from his orders. Seeing this as a petty interjection, Clinton lost his temper and blurted out that he would rather be in a detached command of just three companies than serve directly underneath Howe. The outburst brought into the open Clinton’s disdain for his commanding officer, and if Howe heard about it, then the two men might no longer be able to work together. Unfortunately for Clinton, he had been heard by Cornwallis.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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